Whaddya Mean My Self is Small?

Is that what your small self really looks like?
Is that what your small self really looks like?

So you hear a lot  of gurus talking about our “small self”, you know, the one we are concerned with all the time; the one we care about how it looks and its monetary goals and dreams etc.  This is that same one that takes everything too seriously at times, gets its feelings hurt and feels dazed and confused most of that time. Right, that’s the one gurus tell us is not the whole story.

I actually was pretty old when I heard this truth (and I do believe it is a truth). I had kinda heard about it  via Plato because he had gone on and on about the tripartite self/ soul (appetitive, spirited and rational) in his famous book The Republic.  (In Philosophy school they really make you read all that stuff). The rational part of the soul was the one that searched for truth, you know, the capital T Truth. And it controlled the other “lesser” parts of the soul.

Okay. I mean that sounded pretty comprehensive to me. We can control how we respond to events and feelings or even whether or not we chow down on those delicious garlic fries at the ball park. So swell, I lived the next several years with  this understanding of my “self”. I made every effort to make Plato proud, and I chose paths that led to capital T- land as much as I  could. And that was fine. I learned a lot of stuff, and it actually was not such a bad way to live. The problem with it is, it that it is kind of recursive and you get stuck going around and around in the cycle of this tripartite soul.

I was stuck in this dyer cycle when I heard or read some Buddhist guy say that his goal in life was to minimize, if not eradicate his “small self”. I remember taking a double take and thinking “wait, does he mean he is trying to eliminate Plato’s rational part of his soul, the one that leads to Truth”? Wut??? But as I listened, I began to see that this guy was talking about something totally different. He was talking about the illusion we have of a clear self; a mere chimera that seems so real and grounded we cannot differentiate it from Capital T Truth. And on this guy’s take, a Buddhist take, (news flash) there is no self! Nada. Zippo. Not real.

Hmmm… what does a poor girl from Los Angeles, classically trained in Western Philosophy do with this bombshell?  So, you mean that this person who I think I am, and is recognized by other three dimensional sentient beings is not ultimately real? Wow.

At first, of course, I totally flipped out. But being a professional philosopher, I could not ignore this idea. In future posts, I will tell you how I processed this news. But I am curious to hear what experiences all of you have  had about this idea of a “illusory” small self, and in fact any self at all. Thoughts?

Kath Katsenis

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  1. denial of the self and self aggrandizement are both ways of creating a problem where the solution is to simply ‘stop doing that’.

    it’s a healthy thing to accept yrself for what you are, both as an unique individual and as part of an unfathomably greater whole. as long as we’re in this life, the tension between those two opposites are going to create suffering great and small. accepting transcendence from suffering when available is the least we can do for ourselves – and especially for others, who have to put up with the same human conditions.

    in other words – why not do both? allow the self to expand and contract naturally within the bounds of compassion.

    you should take a look at ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’ by Jonathan Haidt; there is much research which essentially posits that the rational mind is little more than a PR flack for instinct, which is pretty freaky to contemplate. cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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